At an intellectual level I’ve always known that being an individual entails being different to others, at least in some respects. And yet…despite age, and enough life experience to sink a ship, I keep expecting others to like what I like. In other words, I keep expecting them to be like me.
Every time I write about a book I’ve loved, or a glorious vista, or a piece of music that moved my soul, I expect that you will feel the same way. And I’m rarely wrong. The individuals who gravitate to this blog and become friends are, by and large, like me. Thanks to the power of social media, you are my kindred spirits. 🙂
By definition, a kindred spirit is someone like oneself, and on social media it happens when people are drawn to each other via shared interests. Think iron filings to a magnet. The degree to which we ‘stick’ depends upon the number of interests we share.
This filtering process happens in the real world too, but at a much slower rate because we can only physically interact with a small number of people at a time – family, friends, neighbours, colleagues at work etc. Plus there is no guarantee that the people we do meet will be sympatico.
And right there is one of the most wonderful and dangerous aspects of social media – the ability to consistently give us what we want.
Why? Because most of us want to belong. We want to be with people who make us feel warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves.
This is how social media bubbles form. But feeling good about ourselves involves a value judgement about what ‘good’ actually means. Even if you never consciously question your own likes and dislikes, you recognize them in others and automatically judge them to be ‘good’.
And I’m no different. I believe I’m a good person, so I can’t help believing that people who share my values are good people too.
But if we are the good people, what of the others? What of those who don’t share our values? Are they the bad people?
My head says “Of course not!” My heart says “Maybe”.
Every time I log in to Twitter and read a comment distorting some fact or praising something I consider to be ‘evil’, the anger says “Bad person, bad, bad!”
And then the shame sets in because I know that person isn’t bad. I know that if I got to know them through some other area of life, I’d probably think they were okay.
How do I know that? Because I’ve lived it. Many years ago when I lived in a shared student house, there was a girl there with a very abrasive personality. I didn’t like her one little bit. Then one day, to my shame, I discovered that the abrasiveness was just a facade to protect the sad person underneath.
More recently, I’ve discovered that many of the right wing panelists on The Drum [see footnote 1 at the end of this article] aren’t right wing about all topics. In fact, I’ve often caught myself marvelling that someone with those political affiliations could be so open to, for example, action on climate change, or same sex marriage or some other supposedly left wing issue.
I’m a left wing progressive, but I don’t intend to turn this post into some kind of pseudo political rant. Instead, I want to hammer home the fact that expectations based on social media bubbles are dangerous.
We humans are hardwired to generalise. It’s a powerful mental shortcut that allows us to make snap decisions based on just a few facts. This ability would have been a real survival mechanism back in the days of the woolly mammoth. These days? Not so much because thinking in generalities often substitutes for thinking, period.
Sadly, social media bubbles reinforce those generalities just when we should be questioning everything, starting with our own assumptions. We need facts, and we need to call out untruths, but we need to do so with courtesy because that ‘other’ person is more like us than not.
In years to come, people will look back on this era of social media and shake their heads at how bad the ‘wild wild west’ really was before it was tamed. In that yet-to-be-realised future, individual privacy will be protected by law, anonymity will not be allowed, and social media companies will face the full force of the law if they’re found to have manipulated their users.
But we’re not there yet.
Footnote 1 : The Drum is a current affairs show on Australian TV. It’s part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] and funded by taxpayers. As such, its charter requires that it be unbiased. That’s why the panelists on The Drum are chosen to be inclusive, and represent as many interest groups as possible, including people of both the left and right political persuasion.